I Love to Tell the Story

Christmas Eve Service, 24 December 2011 (c) Rev. Fred L Hammond

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

Chalice Lighting:

Many years ago the stars guided people to navigate the seas, to find new lands, and to find the way towards hope and love in the life of a child.  We light this chalice tonight to recognize that we all need stars to guide us, some shine bright in the night sky and others shine bright in the faces of  our neighbors, and still others are found  shining within our own hearts.  May this light be a lamp unto our path.

Homily:  I Love to Tell the Story

When I was young, Christmas was a magical time.  The Christmas tree would be put up on Christmas Eve.  Now when I was really young, it always just seemed to just appear in the living room fully decorated on Christmas morn with presents beneath it.  It was like the tree itself just made itself some room in an already small room.  We made room for the miracle of Christmas unlike that first Christmas when there was no room in the inn.

Recently a childhood friend of my sister’s shared on Facebook a similar Christmas story at her house.  She writes, “When I was a child, we entered the living room to a fully decorated tree ablaze with lights, glass ornaments, and tinsel. This had been surreptitiously accomplished by my parents and grandparents.”  This surprise of joy she carried on to her own child, who would come home from Christmas Eve services to a tree fully ablaze with lights and his squeals of  “He came! He came!”

Later when I was older, I would go out with my dad into the woods to find the tree that we would make room for in our home.  We would decorate the tree with tinsel made of lead that had to be straightened out before hand and laid carefully strand by strand on the branches. I remember we had to be careful not to break the tinsel. And as we brought out the ornaments, we would hear the stories of the people who had given these ornaments.  Some of my favorite ornaments were so because of the people who had given them. The stories I would hear about their lives would bring their spirits alive at Christmas.

Every year we tell the stories of Christmas.  We sing the carols of the season.  It isn’t because we do not remember these stories or songs from last year.  We do remember. But we tell these stories because whether we believe the actual details of the stories or not, we resonate with the underlying truth of them.  The underlying truth of the Christmas story is that there are always people in our lives to shine a star to help guide our ways. 

There are always moments of transcendence that will lift our hearts out of despair.  There is always the potential to act in ways that would advance peace and good will. And there is always room in our hearts to be surprised by joy, if we would let it in.

The Christmas story whether it is the one found in the Christian Scriptures, the one told to children of a visit from St. Nick, or the rattling chains of the ghosts of Christmas past is filled with the values that we want to not only impart to others but also remind ourselves that these are the values that we hold most dear.

Marshall Ganz, grassroots organizer, lecturer, and public policy maker writes, “Stories not only teach us how to act – they inspire us to act.  Stories communicate our values through the language of the heart, our emotions. And it is what we feel – our hopes, our cares, our obligations – not simply what we know that can inspire us with the courage to act.”

This is the reason why the Christmas story is told again and again even by people who do not believe in the virgin birth, the star that shown above in the East, or the multitude of angels singing top the shepherds watching their flocks in the fields.

So what stories do you tell over and over again about your family, about our congregation, about our community, about our nation?  Within these stories is a narrative that reveals our values.  Tell them again and listen for the underlying values that are present.  What is being communicated in the telling?  Are the values they contain really what you want your narrative to include?

My grandmother had a bell jar that sat in the dining room.  It wasn’t used in the manner that bell jars were used.  This bell jar was used to create a terrarium.  In the fall, my grandmother would begin gathering the mosses, the small polypody ferns, and the partridgeberries with their small red fruit against the dark evergreen leaves.  She would plant them in a bed of humus with some rocks and wooden branches inside the bell jar.  The winter sun would warm the air inside the bell jar causing the moisture to rise and fall and these plants would continue to grow and offer some color for the cold winter months. 

Also in the dining room was a series of shelves along the southern exposed windows where her collection of African violets grew.  These would bloom all winter long with their deep purples, blues, and pink velvety flowers.  These plants made the cold dark winters a bit more bearable for my grandmother who loved walking through her wooded trails and visiting with the wide variety of ferns, orchids, and wildflowers that grew naturally on her property.

This is a story of her prized value; caring for the living earth.  She loved nature and all the beauty it contained. To carry the spark of green with her through the winter was an important tool for her spiritual well being.  This story also contains a value that is part of our Unitarian Universalist principles, respect for the interdependent web of all existence.

It is a value that is told in many stories shared this season.  Frank Capra’s classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” shares this value in a slightly different way.  The Bailey Building and Loan financial resources aren’t found in the bank, they are found in the homes of beloved neighbors built by money loaned.

It’s a value shared again in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” again in a slightly different way.  This time the value of interdependence is expressed in the effects of how getting mine first negatively impacts on the well being of us and others, including the life of tiny Tim Cratchet.

The story of the Christ child is the same only in reverse. It is the story of how one life; one solitary life can begin to change the lives and directions of so many lives towards the positive.  We are indeed interdependently connected, the law of physics of one action causes an equal re-action is true.  And for us living creatures it tends to be exponential.

There is an ancient text of what happened after the three Magi visited the infant Jesus. It is a story of how they took the message of hope of Emmanuel, which means god dwells with us and transformed their home community.  When the Apostle Thomas appears later after the death of Jesus, he finds a community already living the gospel message.  One event, even one so simple, yet profound as a birth of a child, can transform the lives of many.

My sister’s childhood friend’s surprise of Christmas joy is carried forward another generation and my sharing it with you expand it further.  The birth of Jesus has changed the world over and is incorporated as we have heard tonight into the fabric of two world religions, Christianity and Islam.

So it is important to tell the stories that highlight the values we most honor and want to live up to in our daily lives. Changing the narrative can change the way we live our lives in the here and now.  This is important for us seeking to become a vibrant religious community. What are the stories that members are telling about the congregation.  Are they stories that speak to the values that are going to compel others to say they want to be part of our congregation?  Or are they stories that say move along now, nothing to see here?

Listen to the stories being shared.  If they are not revealing the values the community wants to manifest then stop telling those stories and tell new ones.  Tell stories of transformation. Tell stories of lives being changed.  Tell stories of liberation.  They exist within our congregations.  

It is these stories that will invite others to join us. It is these stories that we will want to hear again and again because they call out to us to reach towards our better selves and to create a better world.  Tell the story of Christmas, not because you believe it to be true, but because the story contains a truth of how we are to live; aware of our interconnections, aware of how love shared transforms far beyond our own horizons.  Blessed Be.

The Culture is the Crucible

Connie Goodbread, Acting District Executive for the Mid-South District of the Unitarian Universalism Association of Congregations (UUA) when speaking about faith development will often say:  “Faith Development is all we do; Unitarian Universalism is all we teach;  and the Congregation is the Curriculum.”   Recently at a Regional staff meeting we were discussing the vision of Unitarian Universalism for the Southern Region and I mentioned that when we live our faith out in the community the Culture is the Crucible.

We only truly embody our faith and values when we live those values in the culture.  It is in the culture that our faith is put to the test to strengthen our mettle.  Currently our culture is resisting attempts to be compassionate towards others.  There are loud voices that claim  the individual is above all others; disregarding the worth and dignity of others.   Moves in our government to reduce taxes on the über wealthy and corporations  to the detriment of life giving services to the poorest in our country is received with high praise by politicians and citizens alike.  The recent GOP debate had an audience member shout ‘let him die’  to the hypothetical question  of a young man who chose not to get insurance and then had an accident which left him in a coma, should he be treated?  A bad decision on the young man’s part and lack of compassion by the Ayn Rand neophytes who place individual rights and a disdain for minor impositions above collective societal rights.   It is in this world where we either live up to what we claim to profess on Sunday morning or we fail to meet the challenge.

This is the test of our values as Unitarian Universalists. How well do we represent these values in the day to day? Do we speak up when we see someone being abused for being gay or discriminated against for being an immigrant? Do we talk with our friends about the deep matters in life or do we hide away to keep the peace when a disparaging word is said about another group ?

If being Unitarian Universalist is only good one day a week then our faith is weak and ineffective.  We should not continually wonder why our congregations are not growing and or why claims of irrelevance surface. If we are not seeking to live the principles that we covenant to uphold then our voice will continue to grow weak against the din and noise of the popular cultural shift towards Ayn Rand’s extreme individualism.

As a faith, as congregations, as individuals we need to examine how we embody the values our faith teaches out in the world where we breathe, and eat, and have our being.  This is not an easy challenge. It is hard work  this path we have chosen. Dag Hammarskjold wrote these words “This is your path, And it is now, Now, that you must not fail.”

I repeat Connie Goodbread’s words with mine added at the end:

Faith development is all we do;
Unitarian Universalism is all we teach;
the congregation is the curriculum;
and the culture is the crucible.

This is our task and our path. We must not fail.